WASHINGTON–Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has managed a parliamentary maneuver so he can make another try at passing legislation to create a trust fund for workers injured by asbestos.
Last week the senator in an unexpected move managed to insert an arcane provision into the Senate version of the annual budget resolution that bars opponents of the asbestos measure from seeking a budget point of order on the bill.
The budget point of order was a parliamentary hurdle which allowed opponents of the measure to stop further action on the bill last year. The measure is opposed by the insurance industry.
Sen. Specter said he does not plan to reintroduce the exact same measure that failed last year. He said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has agreed to be a co-sponsor of the expected legislation.iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAAAEAAAABAQMAAAAl21bKAAAAA3NCSVQBAQF8LneCAAAABlBMVEUA AAD///+l2Z/dAAAAAnRSTlP/AOW3MEoAAAABYktHRACIBR1IAAAADGNtUFBKQ21wMDcxMgAAAAdP bbelAAAACklEQVQY02NoAAAAggCBpwG6EAAAAABJRU5ErkJggk==
Last year’s bill, the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act (FAIR Act), failed to survive a budget point of order and died last February on the Senate floor.
It drew opposition from the insurance industry and most midsized corporations on a number of points. The bill would have created a $140 billion federally administered fund to resolve claims by those injured by exposure to asbestos in the workplace.
Insurers would have had to contribute $45 billion over 27.5 years to the fund in addition to the portion provided by manufacturers facing asbestos injury cases.
After 27.5 years all claims would revert to the court system.
The companies also objected to a requirement that would have called for insurers to open their books to a commissioner appointed by the president in order to assess their potential liability.
Also drawing their opposition was the fact that most of their $45 billion in contributions would have been front-loaded–paid within the first five years the fund was in existence.
Sen. Specter said the trust fund legislation will be restructured this year “to make it ironclad that the federal government will not have to pay anything.”
Instead, the trust fund would be established by asbestos manufacturers “interested in avoiding the crush of litigation and the attendant costs,” Sen. Specter said.
While the Senate Judiciary Committee reported a comprehensive reform bill last year, Sen. Specter told reporters that in the intervening time, $140 billion that had been available for a trust fund has been reduced “very substantially by the formation of bankruptcy trusts.”
Sen. Specter said members would now be considering establishing a reduced trust fund and are looking at dealing with victims of mesothelioma–a deadly ailment associated with exposure to asbestos–while deferring action on individuals not having “tangible damages.”
“We are dealing with an award–without a showing of liability, simply the damages of mesothelioma–of $1,100,000, an amount that was established last year after considerable negotiation, and I think it is fair to say it has been accepted as a reasonable figure,” Sen. Specter said.
Pat Hanlon, an attorney representing the National Association of Manufacturers, which supported Sen. Specter’s legislation last year, said, “I don’t believe the FAIR Act is under active consideration right now, but other reforms that would include a trust fund are being considered.”
The FAIR Act failed to gain passage when Sens. Specter and Leahy were unable to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a so-called budget point of order.
William Fay, spokesperson for the Coalition for Asbestos Reform, said it remains unclear whether the amendment by Sen. Specter solves all the budget points of order created by the legislation. His organization, composed of midsized defendants of asbestos legislation, and most insurance companies fought the FAIR bill.
Ben McKay, senior vice president, federal government relations for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, said: “We would support a fair and equitable trust fund bill, but a trust fund that does not provide certainty and finality is unworkable financially and does nothing to ensure that the victims who are truly suffering are compensated first.”
In a statement released after the Friday vote approving the budget provision, Sen. Specter said, “The amendment preserves hope for asbestos victims who cannot receive compensation from an irrational tort system.”